Elfie Tuesday: Q&A with Ethan Paulini, Buddy the Elf

With Elf The Musical taking the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, we are penning a new short series called “Elfie Tuesday” every Tuesday throughout its run.
Actor Ethan Paulini is performing the role as Buddy the Elf in The Rep’s production of Elf. Our Dramaturg Robert Neblett took a few moments to ask him some questions about the show and his role of playing the loveable character, which can also be found in our special study guide for the production here.
Photo by John David Pittman

Photo by John David Pittman

Why do you think Elf (the film) has become such a contemporary holiday classic?

Every generation seems to have a classic Christmas film. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and now Elf. I think Elf came out at a time when people wanted to laugh. The idea of family and togetherness is a common theme for the holiday season, but I think that combined with the out and out, over-the-top comedy of Elf really resonated with audiences. Laughing makes people feel good and people want to feel good at Christmas.

How would you describe the biggest differences between the film and the musical version of Elf?

Well, singing and dancing for one thing. There are slight variations in the story to support a musical number or a slightly modified comedic bit. The original story is there and many iconic moments are represented on stage, but it also explores the relationships between these characters slightly differently, especially the family. They all have a different experience while trying to accept this 30-year-old, 6’2” tall grown-up who thinks he is one of Santa’s elves.

What do you think the ultimate message of the piece is?

There is a lyric in the song “The Story of Buddy the Elf” that I sing with my father – “maybe the point of the story is it’s never too late to grow.” The beauty of this line is that I don’t think it means growing in a traditional sense. I think it is more about that willingness to change and evolve as a person. Buddy doesn’t apologize for who he is and rather than caving in to the pressures to conform, he makes others rediscover the child inside them. He pushes them to in many ways be themselves.

Is there a little bit of Buddy in you?

Absolutely. I would like to hope I am a bit more mature and aware, but I do like to think I have maintained some of the youthful optimism that Buddy has in spades.

How do you prepare for a role like Buddy? What do you hope to bring to it that no one else can?

I think this is a role, more than some others, that is about building up my stamina. I am onstage for virtually the entire show, so for me it’s about staying healthy. I have been exercising, trying to eat right and get plenty of sleep. As far as the actual role, of course, I watched the movie. I definitely want to make Buddy my own so I am trying to find a way to bring what Will Ferrell brought initially but I also want to put my own stamp on the role. One of the great things about Arkansas Repertory Theatre is that they aren’t interested in carbon copies or replicating a particular production or movie, so that gives me the freedom to bring all of my own ideas about who Buddy is and where is comedy comes from. I hope to bring a sense of authenticity to him. The comedy comes from his earnestness, he doesn’t try to be or even realize he is being funny, and I like to think as a comedic actor that is something I understand and do well.

You’ve played many roles onstage at The Rep. Do you have any favorites? How would you describe Little Rock audiences, compared to other audiences around the country?

This is the toughest question. I have loved them all for different reasons. I gained a lot from each and every experience in both personal and professional ways. I suppose The Full Monty will always hold a special place for me since it was my first show here. The rehearsal process for my most recent show, Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr ABRIDGED was special because the process was so personal. Nicole Capri (our director, and the director of Elf) really allowed us and encouraged us to bring ourselves to the characters. That is not only so rare, but also makes it a lot of fun. For me, I guess each experience boils down to the people and each show has provided me the opportunity to work with such remarkable collaborators that it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to just a couple of memorable moments. The audiences here are so generous. It takes a lot of energy to get out there and do this sort of work and the audiences here give it back. It makes it that much more rewarding for us to do our jobs.

How do you think Little Rock audiences will respond to this show? What do you think will surprise them about the musical?

I think they will LOVE the show. It’s bright, shiny and happy. But I think the surprise will be how touching this story and these characters are. Of course they will come in expecting to laugh but I think they will leave feeling warmer and perhaps a bit more nostalgic than they expected.

What was your favorite Christmas movie or television program when you were growing up and why?

Well, I used to countdown the minutes until Frosty and Rudolph and all of those great television specials that would come on during Christmas. But without a doubt, A Christmas Story is not only my favorite Christmas movie, but one of my very favorite movies. When it is on for 24 hours on Christmas, I generally average 3 or 4 viewings. I just find that family so warm. I really feel like it captures that childlike excitement that occurs during the whole holiday season. It didn’t sugarcoat it, either. It showed those characters as flawed and funny and human and totally lovable.

What is it like performing away from home on Christmas? Do your fellow actors become your family on occasions like that?

There are so many people here in Little Rock who are like my family that it feels surprisingly natural. I have worked with Mark, our musical director, Marisa our dance captain, and Nicole, our director, on several occasions and I count them among my best friends in the world. Beyond that, Little Rock has always been so welcoming to me that there are many people who I consider family here. When you work in this business, you have to instantly accept people as an integral part of your life very quickly. That also tends to create a familial dynamic. In this show, I have worked with many of the actors before both here in Little Rock and around the country. In addition, I am a career and acting coach and I even have three clients in the cast. I am also fortunate to have my dad, sister and niece and nephews coming to see the show just before Christmas.

What do you want Santa to bring you this Christmas?

Continued success and challenging and rewarding collaborations, health for me and my family and friends and the strength to follow my path wherever it may lead me….and if he has an extra iPhone 6 laying around, I’d take it off his hands.

All remaining shows of Elf are sold out but there are 10 Standing Room Only seats at $40 apiece for each performance. Just stop by the Box Office an hour before showtime to receive a voucher! Call (501) 378-0405 for more information.

Pulled from Elf study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

EthanPauliniElfHeadshot

Ethan Paulini* (Buddy) is elated to be “home” for the holidays. Many thanks to Nicole, Marisa, Mark, Bob and everyone here at Arkansas Repertory Theatre for this incredible opportunity. Ethan has previously appeared at The Rep in Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr, Avenue Q, White Christmas, The Who’s Tommy and The Full Monty. New York credits include work at Playwrights Horizon, 54Below, Roundabout, NYTW and more. National tour and regional credits include: Spelling Bee, Side Man, Urinetown, Spider Woman, Gross
Indecency, Old Wicked Songs, The Last 5 Years, Forever Plaid, tick, tick…BOOM!, A Class Act, Moon Over Buffalo, The Drowsy Chaperone, The 39 Steps and Young Frankenstein (NH Theatre Award). Ethan has originated roles in works by Marisa Michelson, Lance Horne, Tom Dudzick, Andrew Gerle and David Caudle. Television and film credits include: “The Big Headache,” “It Is What It Is,” “Here and Now” (NBC) and “The Quinn-Tuplets” (CBS, directed by Emmy Award-winner Mimi Leder), as well as numerous national commercials. Ethan is also a writer, director/choreographer and acting/career
coach. His show Mama and Her Boys premiered in 2011 and has since been performed hundreds of times all over the country, including an 18-month Off-Broadway run. Ethan can be heard on Lisa Howard’s debut album “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” now available on iTunes. Proud member of AEA/SAG/AFTRA. For more info: www.
ethanpaulini.com. Dedicated to the memory of his mother, Deirdre.

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